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Secrets of the Charismatic Organization

Where some nonprofits are chronically underfunded, others can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars at a single event. Their boards are full of energetic, knowledgeable, and connected people. They have grown steadily over the last decade. They are the go-to groups on their issues, the places to work, the leaders in their fields.

The reason for the success of these nonprofits is not charismatic leadership. Not every charismatic leader runs a successful organization, and not every successful organization has a charismatic leader. The secret is far simpler—and within the reach of any organization.

Imagine a strong, well-run organization. It is almost inevitable that human capital—board members, staff, and volunteers—is fundamental to its success. Nonprofit organizations that successfully attract and retain human capital rarely do so with high compensation packages or glitzy perks, however. They do so by inspiring people with their missions and by building strong connections among those who work for the cause. In this way, they attract not just staff but other essential human capital as well, including board members and volunteers, all of whom make it possible for the organization to deliver on its mission.

Focusing only on internal management, however, will not build a charismatic organization. Nonprofits also need to draw new people into their circles—as staff, volunteers, donors, political supporters, and influential champions. They do this through powerful communications, active outreach, and offering multiple opportunities for engagement—not just an annual holiday appeal but a wide array of occasions for individuals to connect to the cause in meaningful ways.

In short, success demands high levels of social capital—relationships with people who will make introductions, recommend the organization for funding, build partnerships, advocate for the cause, tell others about the organization's work, recruit staff and clients, and act in dozens of other ways to support the organization. Instead of focusing on major donors or influential policymakers, organizations that hope to increase their influence and impact need to focus on building relationships at all levels. In short, social capital is the key to unlocking all other essential forms of capital that nonprofits need—including financial, human, and political capital.

In an organization with strong social capital, once a person checks in, they rarely check out. A former staff person becomes a board member. A donor becomes a key partner. A client becomes a volunteer. And they bring their friends, families, and colleagues with them. Among the benefits that these organizations receive from building social capital is that it forms a bridge to other networks. Each staff person, board member, volunteer, and client is the hub of a potentially vast network of other contacts. They may belong to clubs or sports teams, religious congregations, or book groups. They have family members—spouses, in-laws, cousins, children, or grandparents. They have current or former employers, and their family members do too. They meet people on planes or trains or bus stops. And they have friends—different friends, in all likelihood, from diverse walks of life.

So when it is time to find a new receptionist, corporate partner, or person who knows the mayor or how to use social networking Web sites, the organization has the ability to reach beyond the people on its payroll for help. The volunteer who does the Saturday shift may be married to the mayor's press assistant and have a daughter who's a computer whiz. The client who credits the organization with changing his life may know someone who runs the biggest company in town. The receptionist who is moving on may know someone from her synagogue who would be just right for the job. And when it is time to play "Six Degrees of Separation" to find the right person to make a call to a congressman, these broad social networks significantly increase the likelihood of success.

Most organizations could increase their social capital with reasonable effort. They could prioritize their outreach and cultivation efforts. They could tell their story more compellingly and widely. And they could make it easy for new people to join their community—using their strong track records and existing relationships to reach out credibly to a broader network of prospective staff, volunteers, funders, and other champions. Building social capital can't be within the sole purview of the organization's leader; it needs to be a key responsibility of everyone who cares about the cause. When that happens, any nonprofit can become a charismatic organization.

Shirley Sagawa
© 2009, Shirley Sagawa

Shirley Sagawa is a visiting fellow with the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Charismatic Organization: Eight Ways to Grow a Nonprofit That Builds Buzz, Delights Donors, and Energizes Employees. On October 28, 2009, she was the guest presenter for a free GuideStar webinar, "Is Your Nonprofit a Charismatic Organization?"

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice